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History of video game consoles (fourth generation)

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Title: History of video game consoles (fourth generation)  
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Subject: Video game consoles, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, List of Sega video game consoles, Sega Genesis, Sega CD
Collection: History of Video Games
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

History of video game consoles (fourth generation)

Part of a series on the:
History of video games

In the history of computer and video games, the fourth generation (more commonly referred to as the 16-bit era) of games consoles began on October 30, 1987 with the Japanese release of Nippon Electric Company's (NEC) PC Engine (known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America). Although NEC released the first fourth generation console, and was second to the SNES in Japan, this era's sales were mostly dominated by the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega's consoles in North America: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the Super Famicom in Japan) and the Mega Drive (named the Sega Genesis in North America due to trademark issues). Nintendo was able to capitalize on its previous success in the third generation and managed to win the largest worldwide market share in the fourth generation as well. Sega was extremely successful in this generation and began a new franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog, to compete with Nintendo's Mario series of games. Several other companies released consoles in this generation, but none of them were widely successful. Nevertheless, several other companies started to take notice of the maturing video game industry and began making plans to release consoles of their own in the future. This generation ended with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System's discontinuation in 1999 in North America, Australia and Europe.

Some features that distinguished fourth generation consoles from third generation consoles include:


  • Home systems 1
    • PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16/TurboGrafx 1.1
    • Mega Drive/Sega Genesis 1.2
    • Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System 1.3
    • Compact Disc Interactive (CD-i) 1.4
    • Neo Geo 1.5
    • Add-ons 1.6
    • European and Australian importing 1.7
    • Comparison 1.8
    • Other consoles 1.9
    • Worldwide sales standings 1.10
  • Handheld systems 2
    • List of handheld consoles 2.1
    • Other 2.2
  • Software 3
    • Milestone titles 3.1
  • Notes 4
  • References 5

Home systems

PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16/TurboGrafx


The PC Engine was the result of a collaboration between Hudson Soft and NEC and launched in Japan on October 30, 1987. It launched in North America during August 1989, under the name TurboGrafx-16.

Initially, the PC Engine was quite successful in Japan, partly due to titles available on the then-new CD-ROM format. NEC released a CD add-on in 1990 and by 1992 had released a combination TurboGrafx and CD-ROM system known as the Turbo Duo.

In the USA, NEC used Bonk, a head-banging caveman, as their mascot and featured him in most of the TurboGrafx advertising from 1990 to 1994. The platform was well received initially, especially in larger markets, but failed to make inroads into the smaller metropolitan areas where NEC did not have as many store representatives or as focused in-store promotion.

The TurboGrafx-16 failed to maintain its sales momentum or to make a strong impact in North America. The TurboGrafx-16 and its CD combination system, the Turbo Duo, ceased manufacturing in North America by 1994, though a small amount of software continued to trickle out for the platform.

In Japan, a number of more adult titles were also available for the PC-Engine, such as a variety of strip mahjong games (such as the Super Real Mahjong series), which set it apart from its competitors.

Mega Drive/Sega Genesis

Second revision of the Sega Genesis

The Mega Drive was released in Japan on October 29, 1988.[1] The console was released in New York City and Los Angeles on August 14, 1989 under the name Sega Genesis, and in the rest of North America later that year.[2] It was launched in Europe and Australia on November 30, 1990 under its original name.

Sega built their marketing campaign around their new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog,[3] pushing the Genesis as the "cooler" alternative to Nintendo's console[4] and inventing the term "Blast Processing" to suggest that the Genesis was capable of handling games with faster motion than the SNES.[5] Their advertising was often directly adversarial, leading to commercials such as "Genesis does what Nintendon't" and the "'SEGA!' scream".[6]

When the arcade game Mortal Kombat was ported for home release on the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo decided to censor the game's gore, but Sega kept the content in the game, via a code entered at the start screen (A,B,A,C,A,B,B). Sega's version of Mortal Kombat received generally more favorable reviews in the gaming press and outsold the SNES version three to one. This violence also led to Congressional hearings to investigate the marketing of violent video games to children, and to the creation of the Interactive Digital Software Association and the Entertainment Software Rating Board.[7] Sega concluded that the superior sales of their version of Mortal Kombat were outweighed by the resulting loss in consumer trust, and cancelled the game's release in Spain to avoid further controversy.[8] With the new ESRB rating system in place, Nintendo reconsidered its position for the release of Mortal Kombat II, and this time became the preferred version among reviewers.[9][10] The Toy Retail Sales Tracking Service reported that during the key shopping month of November 1994, 63% of all 16-bit video game consoles sold were Sega systems.[11]

The console was never popular in Japan (being regularly outsold by the PC Engine), but still managed to sell 40 million units worldwide. By late 1995, Sega was supporting five different consoles and two add-ons, and Sega of Japan chose to discontinue the Mega Drive in Japan to concentrate on the new Sega Saturn. While this made perfect sense for the Japanese market, it was disastrous in North America: the market for Genesis games was much larger than for the Saturn, but Sega was left without the inventory or software to meet demand.[12]

Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System, first revision.

Nintendo executives were initially reluctant to design a new system, but as the market transitioned to the newer hardware, Nintendo saw the erosion of the commanding market share it had built up with the Famicom (called Nintendo Entertainment System outside Japan).[13] Nintendo's fourth-generation console, the Super Famicom, was released in Japan on November 21, 1990; Nintendo's initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out within hours.[14] The machine reached North America as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System on August 23, 1991,[cn 1] and Europe and Australia in April 1992.

Despite stiff competition from the Mega Drive/Sega Genesis console, the Super Famicom/SNES eventually took the top selling position, selling 49.10 million units worldwide,[21] and would even remain popular well into the 32-bit generation.[22] Nintendo's market position was defined by their machine's increased video and sound capabilities,[23] as well as exclusive first-party franchise titles such as Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid. Later titles such as Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country would keep the Super Famicom/SNES relevant well into the "fifth generation" era of 32- and 64-bit consoles.

Compact Disc Interactive (CD-i)

The CD-i format was announced in the late 80s, with the first machines compatible with the format being released in 1991. The Phillips CD-i main selling point was that it was more than a game machine and could be used for multimedia needs. Due to an agreement between Nintendo in Philips about an abortive CD add-on for the SNES, Philips also had rights to use some of Nintendo franchises. The CD-i was a commercial failure and was discontinued in 1998. Selling only 1 million units world wide despite a lot of partners and multiple versions of the device, some made by other manufacturers.

Neo Geo


Released by SNK in 1990, the Neo Geo was a home console version of the major arcade platform. Compared to its console competition, the Neo Geo had much better graphics and sound, but the prohibitively expensive launch price of US$649.99 and games often retailing at over $250 made the console only accessible to a niche market. A less expensive version, retailing for $399.99, did not include a memory card, pack-in game or extra joystick.


Nintendo, NEC and Sega also competed with hardware peripherals for their consoles in this generation. NEC was the first with the release of the TurboGrafx CD system in 1990. Retailing for $499.99 at release, the CD add-on was not a popular purchase, but was largely responsible for the platform's success in Japan. Sega made two attempts: the Mega-CD (renamed Sega CD in North America) and the Sega 32X. The Sega CD was plagued by a high price tag ($300 at its release) and a limited library of games. The 32X faced a number of problems, primarily technical and commercial: the peripheral would occasionally not work with some consoles, and some retailers were not able to meet the initial demand for the add-on, leading to shortages. A unique add-on for the Sega console was Sega Channel, a subscription based service hosted by local television providers. It required hardware that plugged into a cable line and the Genesis.

Nintendo also made two attempts: the Satellaview and the Super Game Boy. The Satellaview was a satellite service released only in Japan and the Super Game Boy was an adapter for the Super Famicom and SNES that allowed Game Boy games to be displayed on a TV in color. Nintendo, working along with Sony, also had plans to create a CD-ROM drive for the SNES (plans that resulted in a prototype called the "Play Station"), but eventually decided not to go through with that project, opting to team up with Philips in the development of the add-on instead (contrary to popular belief, the CD-i was largely unrelated to the project). Sony decided to go ahead with the CD-ROM development and used the name "PlayStation" for their own standalone CD-based console, overseen by former Super Famicom sound-chip engineer, Ken Kutaragi. That console would be released in the 5th generation of consoles.

European and Australian importing

green - NTSC, blue - PAL, or switching to PAL, orange - SECAM, olive - no information

The fourth generation was also the era when the act of buying imported US games became more established in Europe, and regular stores began to carry them. The PAL region has a refresh rate of 50 Hz (compared with 60 Hz for NTSC) and a vertical resolution of 625 interlaced lines (576 effective), compared with 525/480 for NTSC. This means that a game designed for the NTSC standard without any modification would run 17% slower and have black bars at the top and bottom when played on a PAL television. Developers often had a hard time converting games designed for the American and Japanese NTSC standard to the European and Australian PAL standard. Companies such as Konami, with large budgets and a healthy following in Europe and Australia, readily optimized several games (such as the International Superstar Soccer series) for this audience, while most smaller developers did not.

Also, few RPGs were released in Europe because they would have needed to be translated into many different languages. RPGs tend to contain much more text than other genres, so one of the biggest problems was simply fitting all of the full translations into one cartridge. The cost of creating multiple full translations was also prohibitive. Only the UK and Australia saw any number of RPG releases, and even then the number was a fraction of what was being released in Japan. For the Mega Drive, there were numerous PAL releases of RPGs. Examples include Phantasy Star II, III and IV, Shining in the Darkness and its sequels Shining Force I and II, Sword of Vermilion, Super Hydlide, Landstalker, Story of Thor, Soleil and Light Crusader. A few of them received French and German translations.[24]

Popular US games imported at this time included Final Fantasy IV (known in the USA as Final Fantasy II), Final Fantasy VI (known in the USA as Final Fantasy III), Secret of Mana, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. Secret of Mana and Street Fighter II would eventually receive official release in Europe.


Name PC-Engine/TurboGrafx-16 Sega Mega Drive/Genesis Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System Neo Geo AES
Manufacturer NEC, Hudson Soft Sega Nintendo SNK

Launch prices (USD) US$199.99 (equivalent to $380.00 in 2016) US$189.99 (equivalent to $361.00 in 2016) US$199.99 (equivalent to $346.00 in 2016) US$649.99 (Gold version) (equivalent to $1.13 thousand in 2016)

US$399.99 (Silver version) (equivalent to $693.00 in 2016)

Release date
  • JP October 30, 1987
  • NA August 29, 1989
  • JP October 29, 1988
  • NA August 14, 1989
  • EU November 30, 1990
  • JP November 21, 1990
  • NA August 23, 1991[cn 1]
  • EU April 11, 1992
  • JP June 18, 1991
  • NA June 18, 1991
  • Cartridge (up to 5 MB)[25]
  • CD-ROM (Mega-CD add-on)
  • Data card (Power Base Converter add-on)
  • Cartridge (up to 6 MB)[26][27]
  • Magnetic disk (Japan only)[28]
  • Floppy disk (unofficial)
  • Cartridge (up to 89.5 MB)[29]
  • Data card (Japan/Europe)[28]
Best-selling games Bonk's Adventure[30] Sonic the Hedgehog (15 million)[31] Super Mario World, 20 million (as of June 25, 2007)[32] Samurai Shodown
Backward compatibility N/A Sega Master System (using Power Base Converter) Nintendo Entertainment System (unlicensed, using Super 8)

Game Boy (using Super Game Boy)

Accessories (retail)


  • CD: Motorola 68000 @ 12.5 MHz (2.19 MIPS)[33]
  • 32X: 2× Hitachi SH-2 (32-bit RISC) @ 23 MHz (60 MIPS)[34]

SA-1 enhancement chip:

  • Nintendo custom 65C816
    10.74 MHz (4.5 MIPS)
  • Hudson Soft HuC6260 Video Color Encoder (16-bit)
  • Hudson Soft HuC6270A Video Display Controller (16-bit)


  • HuC6260
  • 2× HuC6270A
  • HuC6202 Video Priority Controller
  • Yamaha YM7101 VDP (Video Display Processor)[35]


Enhancement chips:

  • SNK LSPC2-A2 (line sprite generator & VRAM interface)[43]
  • SNK PRO-B0 (palette arbiter)[44][45]
Sound chip(s)

CD add-on:


Sony APU (Audio Processing Unit)
  • S-SMP (8-bit Sony SPC700)
  • S-DSP (16-bit DSP)
Yamaha YM2610



  • CD add-on: 64 KB main DRAM, 64 KB audio DRAM
  • Super System Card add-on: 64 KB DRAM, 192 KB SRAM
  • Arcade Card add-on: 2048 KB FPM DRAM, 192 KB SRAM[47]
  • SuperGrafx: 32 KB main RAM, 128 KB video RAM
  • Duo: 256 KB SRAM

136 KB RAM


  • SVP chip: 128 KB DRAM, 2 KB cache RAM, 1 KB DSP RAM[50]
  • CD add-on: 768 KB main RAM, 64 KB audio RAM, 16 KB cache RAM[51]
  • 32X add-on: 256 KB main RAM, 256 KB video RAM

256 KB RAM

  • 128 KB main DRAM
  • 64 KB video SRAM
  • 64 KB audio PSRAM

Enhancement chips:

  • SA-1: 2 KB RAM
  • Super FX: 32 to 128 KB SRAM[42]

726 KB (214 KB RAM, 512 KB ROM)[43]

  • 64 KB main SRAM
  • 84 KB video SRAM
  • 2 KB audio SRAM
  • 64 KB backup NVRAM
  • 512 KB internal ROM


  • CD add-on: Full motion video (FMV)[54]
  • SuperGrafx: 128 sprites on screen, 32 sprites per scanline, 2 sprite layers, 2 parallax scrolling tilemap backgrounds, 512 colors on screen
  • Resolution: 256×224 to 320×240 (progressive),[55] 320×448 to 320×480 (interlaced)
  • Sprites: 80 on screen, 20 per scanline, 8×8 to 32×32 sizes, 16 colors per sprite,[56] integer sprite zoom,[57] sprite flipping[58]
  • Tilemaps: 2 parallax scrolling planes with line & row scroll effects[59] and tile flipping[58]
  • Colors on screen: 64[35] to 75[59] (standard), 192 (shadow/highlight),[35] 512 (160×224 resolution)[59]
  • Color palette: 512 (standard), 1536 (shadow/highlight)[35]


  • Resolution: 256×224 to 256×239 (progressive), 512×448 to 512×478 (interlaced)
  • Sprites: 128 on screen, 32 per scanline, 8×8 to 64×64 sizes, 16 colors per sprite, sprite flipping[39]
  • Tilemaps: 2-4 parallax scrolling planes (lo-res), or 1-2 scrolling planes (hi-res), or 1 scaling/rotating plane (Mode 7)[39]
  • Colors on screen: 256 (1-3 lo-res planes), 128 (4 planes), 128 to 160 (hi-res)[39]
  • Color palette: 32,768 (15-bit high color)

Enhancement chips:

  • Super FX: Few hundred quad polygons/sec[62]
  • Capcom Cx4: Sprite rotation
  • Super FX 2: Sprite scaling
  • Resolution: 320×224 to 384×264[43] (progressive)
  • Sprites: 380 on screen, 96 per scanline, double line buffering, 16×16 to 16×512 sizes, 16 colors per sprite, sprite scaling, sprite flipping[43]
  • Tilemaps: 1 static plane, and optional 1-3 parallax scrolling planes with scaling and line & column scroll effects[43][63]
  • Colors on screen: 4096
  • Color palette: 65,536 (16-bit high color)
Audio Stereo audio with:

CD add-on:

Stereo audio with:


  • SVP chip: 2 PWM channels[37]
  • CD add-on: 8 PCM channels (16-bit, 32 kHz),[38] 1 streaming CD-DA channel (16-bit, 44.1 kHz)
  • 32X add-on: 10-bit PWM, surround sound
Stereo audio with: Stereo audio with:
  • 4 FM synthesis channels/voices
  • 3 square wave channels/voices
  • 1 white noise generator
  • 6 ADPCM channels (12-bit) @ 18.5 kHz sampling rate[68]
  • 1 ADPCM channel (16-bit) @ 1.8 to 55.5 kHz sampling rate[68]

Other consoles

Worldwide sales standings

Console Units sold
Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System 49.10 million[70]
Mega Drive/Sega Genesis 40 million[cn 2]
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 10 million[76]
Neo Geo AES 980,000[77]
CD-i 570,000[69]

Handheld systems

The first handheld game console released in the fourth generation was the Game Boy, on April 21, 1989. It went on to dominate handheld sales by an extremely large margin, despite featuring a low-contrast, unlit monochrome screen while all three of its leading competitors had color. Three major franchises made their debut on the Game Boy: Tetris, the Game Boy's killer application; Pokémon; and Kirby. With some design (Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light) and hardware (Game Boy Color) changes, it continued in production in some form until 2008, enjoying a better than 18-year run.

The Atari Lynx included hardware-accelerated color graphics, a backlight, and the ability to link up to sixteen units together in an early example of network play when its competitors could only link 2 or 4 consoles (or none at all),[78] but its comparatively short battery life (approximately 4.5 hours on a set of alkaline cells, versus 35 hours for the Game Boy), high price, and weak games library made it one of the worst-selling handheld game systems of all time, with less than 500,000 units sold.[79][75]

The third major handheld of the fourth generation was the Sega Game Gear. It featured graphics capabilities roughly comparable to the Master System (better colours, but lower resolution), a ready made games library by using the "Master-Gear" adaptor to play cartridges from the older console, and the opportunity to be converted into a portable TV using a cheap tuner adaptor, but it also suffered some of the same shortcomings as the Lynx. While it sold more than twenty times as many units as the Lynx, its bulky design - slightly larger than even the original Game Boy; relatively poor battery life - only a little better than the Lynx; and later arrival in the marketplace - competing for sales amongst the remaining buyers who didn't already have a Game Boy - hampered its overall popularity despite being more closely competitive to the Nintendo in terms of price and breadth of software library.[80] Sega eventually retired the Game Gear in 1997, a year before Nintendo released the first examples of the Game Boy Color, to focus on the Nomad and non-portable console products.

Other handheld consoles released during the fourth generation included the TurboExpress, a handheld version of the TurboGrafx-16 released by NEC in 1990, and the Game Boy Pocket, an improved model of the Game Boy released about two years before the debut of the Game Boy Color. While the TurboExpress was another early pioneer of color handheld gaming technology and had the added benefit of using the same game cartridges or 'HuCards' as the TurboGrafx16, it had even worse battery life than the Lynx and Game Gear - about three hours on six contemporary AA batteries - selling only 1.5 million units.[75]

List of handheld consoles

Console Game Boy Atari Lynx Sega Game Gear TurboExpress
Manufacturer Nintendo Atari Sega NEC
Launch price ¥12,500[81]
US$89.95 (equivalent to $169.33 in 2016)[82]
US$189.99 (equivalent to $359.58 in 2016) ¥14,500
US$149.99 (equivalent to $257.99 in 2016)
A$155 (equivalent to $249.00 in 2016)
US$299.99 (equivalent to $517.72 in 2016)[83]
Release date April 21, 1989
July 31, 1989
October 11, 1989
October 6, 1990
April 26, 1991
April 26, 1991
November 16, 1990
Units sold 118.69 million (as of December 31, 2009),[84] including Game Boy Color units[85] Under 1 million 11 million[75] 1.5 million[75]
Media Cartridge Cartridge Cartridge Datacard
Best-selling games Tetris, 35 million (pack-in / separately).[86]

Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green, approximately 20.08 million combined (in Japan and the US) (details).[87][88]

RoadBlasters Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Bonk's Adventure
Backward compatibility N/A (Original Cartridges compatible with later models) N/A Sega Master System (using Cartridge Adapter) TurboGrafx-16 (HuCard only)
CPU Sharp LR35902
4.19 MHz
MOS 65SC02
4 MHz maximum, average 3.6 MHz
"Suzy", custom CMOS chip
16 MHz
Zilog Z80
3.5 MHz
HuC6280A (modified 65SC02)
1.79 or 7.16 MHz
Memory 8 KiB internal S-RAM, up to 32 KiB
8 KiB internal video RAM
64 KiB DRAM 8 KiB main RAM
16 KiB video RAM
8 KiB work RAM
64 KiB video RAM
Video 160x144
4 shades of olive green
16 simultaneous colors per scanline; can be increased by changing palettes after each scanline
4096 color palette
32 simultaneous colors
4096 color palette
64 sprites, 16 per scanline
482 simultaneous colors (241 each for backgrounds and sprites)
512 color palette
Audio Stereo audio (using headphones), with:
  • Two square wave voices
  • One programmable WS voice
  • One white noise generator
  • Optional sampling through the WS channel
Stereo audio with:
  • Four square wave voices
  • A built-in DAC for each channel
Stereo audio (using headphones), with:
  • Three square wave voices
  • One white noise generator
Stereo audio (using headphones), with:
  • Six programmable WS voices
  • White noise generation
  • Optional streaming of samples



Milestone titles


  1. ^ a b According to Stephen Kent's The Ultimate History of Video Games, the official launch date was September 9.[15] Newspaper and magazine articles from late 1991 report that the first shipments were in stores in some regions on August 23,[16][17] while it arrived in other regions at a later date.[18] Many modern online sources (circa 2005 and later) report August 13.[19][20]
  2. ^ United States: 20 million,[71] Rest of the world: 15 million,[72] Tec Toy: 3 million,[73] Majesco: 2 million,[74] Sega Nomad: 1 million[75]


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  23. ^ Jeremy Parish (2005-09-06). "PS1 10th Anniversary retrospective". Retrieved 2007-05-27. 
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